Iran protests show danger of economic woes

Demonstrators attend a protest over Iran's weak economy in Tehran, Iran. (AP)
Updated 09 January 2018
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Iran protests show danger of economic woes

DUBAI: The protesters rallied for days in Iran, chanting against government corruption and demanding justice.
That was last year, when depositors who lost their savings in the collapse of a major government-run credit union took to the streets, shouting “Death to (Valiullah) Seif,” Iran’s Central Bank governor.
In the past 10 days, there were new protests, the largest in Iran since its 2009 disputed presidential election, fueled by young people angry over their bleak prospects. This time, they shouted slogans against President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The protests in dozens of towns and cities also showed that a sector of the public was willing to openly call for the removal of Iran’s system of rule by clerics — frustrated not just by the economy but also by concern over Iran’s foreign wars and general direction.
That sentiment likely extends beyond those who took to the streets. But the protests also showed the constraints on discontent. Fear of reprisals probably kept some people away from the protests.
Without drastic change in people’s livelihoods, unrest over the economy will only intensify, becoming perhaps the greatest challenge for Iran as it nears its fourth decade of existence and a new era of leadership looms.
The collapse last year of the Caspian Credit Institute, which promised depositors returns often seen in Ponzi schemes, showed the economic desperation faced by many in Iran. Retirees unable to make ends meet on their pensions can be found driving many of the taxis crowding Tehran’s roads. Universities turn out students with no hope of employment in their fields, while those lucky enough to have work often have a second or even a third job.
Banks remain saddled with bad loans, a warning repeatedly sounded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Some of this stretches back to the days of nuclear sanctions, while others find themselves mired in the murky finances of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which is estimated to control a third of the total economy.
Inflation, initially brought under control by Rouhani, has slipped back into double digits, according to recent figures. He cut some subsidies offered by his hard-line predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Those subsidies benefited rural and poor voters in the provinces, the same people who appear to have taken to the streets in the recent protests, initially sparked by food prices.
The recent protests saw some marchers chant against Iran’s foreign wars, demanding the government focus first on those at home.
Protesters denounced the money going to support Iranian proxies fighting in the region rather than helping people in Iran.
Approaching the 40th anniversary of the revolution, Iran will increasingly consider who will follow the 78-year-old Khamenei, who underwent prostate surgery in 2014. Among those under consideration is Rouhani, himself a cleric. Both the US and analysts studying Iran say hard-liners initially fomented the economic protests to put pressure on Rouhani but quickly lost control of them.
The economic resentment seen in recent days could prompt the rise of another Ahmadinejad-style hard-line populist.
It is hard to tell right now who emerged stronger after the protests — Rouhani or his hard-line opponents. Each tried to wield anger over the economy against the other. Weeks before the protests, Rouhani publicly complained that large parts of the government budget went to religious institutions, largely seen as power bases of the hard-liners, seeking to deflect blame over the economy.


Assad forces target fighters near Golan Heights

Nearly half of Syria's pre-war population of 23 million have been uprooted from their homes. AP
Updated 1 min 38 sec ago
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Assad forces target fighters near Golan Heights

  • Regime forces fired more than 800 missiles at an area between northern Daraa and the Quneitra countryside
  • In Daraa, the evacuation deal will hand over areas held by the fighters for years back to regime control

BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces unleashed hundreds of missiles on an opposition-held area near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Sunday, activists said, the latest phase in an offensive to clear southern Syria of insurgents.
The regime’s push came after it had secured control of most of Daraa province in an offensive that began in June. On Sunday, the first batch of armed fighters and their families left the city of Daraa, the provincial capital, in buses that would take them to the opposition-held Idlib province in the north.
Similar deals in other parts of Syria resulted in the evacuation of thousands of opposition fighters and civilians — evacuations that the UN and rights groups have decried as forced displacement.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said Sunday the success in driving the opposition out of Daraa embodies the will of his army and allied forces to “liberate all of Syrian territories” of “terrorism.”
In recent months and backed by Russian air force, the Syrian regime has restored control of over 60 percent of previously opposition-held territory across the country.
Assad spoke during a meeting on Sunday with visiting Iranian Foreign Ministry official Hossein Jaberi Ansari. Assad’s office said the two agreed that the “elimination of terrorism in most of the Syrian territory has laid the most appropriate ground to reach results at the political level” that could put an end to Syria’s war.
Syria’s regime refers to all armed opposition groups as “terrorists” and accuses the West, Turkey, Israel and regional countries of supporting them.
The statement came a day before President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are to meet in Finland. Syria is expected to feature highly on the agenda. Russia is a major Assad ally.
In Daraa, the evacuation deal will hand over areas held by the fighters for years back to regime control. Daraa, which lies on a highway linking Damascus with Jordan, was the cradle of the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Since early Sunday, regime forces turned their missiles toward a stretch of land controlled by the armed opposition in northern Daraa and the countryside of adjacent Quneitra.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces fired more than 800 missiles at an area between northern Daraa and the Quneitra countryside, about 4 kilometers, or 2.5 miles, from the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The Observatory said government forces advanced on Massharah, a village in Quneitra, and rebels fought back in intense clashes that killed several pro-government fighters. The pro-Syrian regime Central Military Media said a number of insurgents were killed in the clashes.
The Observatory reported airstrikes in Massharah, the first in over a year to hit the Quneitra countryside. It also reported airstrikes in a nearby village in northern Daraa, where regime forces have been trying to retake a key hill there after failing to reach a deal with the fighters. Capturing the hill would enable them to advance on militants in the area linked to Daesh.
Daraa activist Abou Mahmoud Hourani said an estimated 400 members of the armed opposition and their families will be evacuated out of Daraa.
Pro-regime TV Al-Ikhbariya said 10 buses carrying 407 people left for northern Syria.
The station said the evacuation of nearly 1,000 people was likely to be completed by Sunday.